Report sheds light on public opinion on the value of college education

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While employers widely value a college education, not all Americans agree.

A research brief from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC & U) and the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) compares the views of employers and the public on the return on investment of a college education. While nearly nine in ten employers say a college degree is worth the personal investment, only 60% of Americans agree.Dr Kevin Miller

The AAC&U conducted its employer survey last year. These results were combined with the survey by BPC and Morning Consult (a national survey company) of 2,200 randomly selected individuals administered in March 2021. The report noted that there is a general consensus among employers that the the time and money invested in a college education is well worth it. In contrast, the public inquiry showed considerable differences of opinion, hence the report’s title, “Is University Worth the Time and the Money?” It depends on who you ask. ”

Seventy-three percent of public survey respondents who had graduated with a bachelor’s degree and 74% who had an annual income over $ 100,000 thought the investment to earn a college degree was worth it. This compares to only 51% of respondents without a university degree and 52% of respondents with an annual income of less than $ 50,000. There was also a marked difference politically with 70% of Democrats, 53% of Republicans and 52% of Independents believing the university is worth the investment.

“Public support for higher education is really important because it has an impact at all these different levels of government,” said Dr Kevin Miller, associate director of higher education at BPC and one of the authors of the report. “It affects the funding of higher education and the resources available for people to pursue higher education. ”

Miller said the hope is that policy makers as well as institutions pay attention. While there is general support for higher education, there are still a substantial number of Americans who are less certain of the value.

“There is work to be done to ensure that we maintain the real value of higher education and higher education remains a valuable and affordable experience,” Miller said.

This is the first research collaboration between AAC & U and BPC, and it was the first time that AAC & U has used data from a general public survey in one of its reports. Dr Ashley Finley, vice president of research and senior advisor to the president of AAC&U, said the report will allow AAC&U to incorporate discussion and public opinion around this important topic.

“It’s nuanced,” said Finley, also author of the report. “Internally, within higher education, I hope campuses take advantage of this kind of data and how we’re able to tell this story to make a stronger case to their own constituencies so that returning students, parents and mature students can use a larger arsenal of communication tools to really say, “It’s worth it. ”

The survey also showed generational differences. Gen Z (born 1997-2012) were likely to think college is “definitely” or “probably” worth the investment (61%). Millennials (born 1981-1996) were 63%, Generation X (1965-1980) 54% and Baby Boomers (1946-6194) 59%.

“College degrees increase earning potential,” Miller said. “One thing that really concerns BPC, like many other groups, is making sure that people get some sort of degree if they start. For people already in the workforce who are considering getting a certificate or diploma, we want to make sure that institutions, especially public ones, remain affordable and accessible.

There was a considerable divergence between Democrats (39%) and Republicans (25%) when it came to whether they thought exposure to STEM fields was important. When it comes to critical thinking, 72% of Democrats ranked it as very important to the success of the workforce compared to 63% of Republicans.

Although the past year has increased awareness of issues of race and racism, the survey found that only 29% of American adults believe civic learning and engagement should be high priorities in higher education. . Only 32% of respondents indicated that they believe that higher education fostering a sense of social justice for students is a necessary part of professional success. Only 41% of employers indicated that it is very important for recent college graduates to demonstrate an understanding of civic skills or engagement. By comparison, 62% of employers rated teamwork as important.

“The challenge for employers is very similar to the challenge for campuses, to be much more explicit in naming the types of outcomes and skills they are looking for,” said Finley. “These connection points can be extremely valuable. ”

AAC & U will likely be doing another employer survey in a few years. The association continues to survey its partner campuses on what they do and what skills and outcomes they focus on most in their program, says Finley. She also said she hoped to find opportunities to collaborate with BPC and other organizations and make connections between different sectors that influence public policies.

“BPC is very interested in ensuring that there is accountability in higher education so that institutions are monitored to ensure that they are accountable for the quality and affordability of the education that they deliver, ”Miller said. “We also want to make sure that state, local and federal governments are all doing their part to keep higher education accessible and affordable.”


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